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April 26, 2020

Give it a rest

Passage: Leviticus 25:1-13, 23

Have you ever gone out to eat on a major holiday? Take Christmas, for example. You go out to treat yourself because you just don’t feel like cooking. Your server comes to the table and you decide to be extra friendly because, well, it’s Christmas! You can tell your server is trying extra hard as well: looking you in the eye, smiling, and making a concerted effort to be pleasant. You do this not just because you’re a good person (which you are) but because you feel a little guilty for eating out and because your server is having to work on Christmas. You might feel sorry for them because they’re not eating with their loved ones, or at home resting, or otherwise enjoying the holiday. You think to yourself, “When did people start eating out on Christmas? Back in the day, restaurants weren’t even open!” Maybe you even leave a huge tip because you’re feeling internal pressure to catch the holiday spirit and be generous. 

That. That feeling: the tinge of guilt that maybe you’re part something larger that overly taxes others, a participant in a social system that forces people into working when they shouldn’t be. That feeling: when on some level you know that this isn’t right, that you’re in a more fortunate position than someone else, that restaurant workers deserve a break too, but aren’t getting one. 

I can imagine some pushback. “Well, Bart, maybe some people want to work on holidays. Maybe they’d rather be at work than at home.” That could very well be true. I don’t presume to know everyone’s situation. But my point is that we often get the hunch that we, knowingly or unknowingly, play a small role in larger patterns of unjustly benefiting from the labor of others. Maybe the shirt we’re wearing was made in a factory that relies on child labor. Maybe the land on which our house stands was stolen from indigneous folks years ago (actually that’s not a “maybe;” that’s true). Maybe our retirement funds are tied up with fossil fuel or tobacco companies. The list goes on… 

The Creator knew this would happen. God knew our tendency to take more than we need and take advantage of others, not just as individuals but as wider communities, as societies. God knew how this wouldn’t happen just once, but repeatedly, over generations. So after God liberated the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, God gave them guidance on how to structure their economy. It’s almost as if the Holy One said:

“OK, when you get to the Promised Land, here’s what I need you to do: farm the land for six years. After six years, give it a rest. Eat whatever grows on it’s own, but NO TILLING, PLANTING, PRUNING, or any of that! Eat the produce that comes naturally and, trust me, there will be enough for everybody: your families, workers, the poor, and livestock. Happy Sabbath Year! And then, multiply that seven-year period times seven, and when your grandchildren are in charge, everybody will return to their family’s land, if their land was sold it will be returned to them, and all debts will be cancelled. Happy Jubilee Year!” 

God wove into the economy of early Israel a rest period that not only ensured that families wouldn’t be locked into multi-generational cycles of poverty, but that even the land itself would catch a break. That sabbath principle that was embedded within creation itself — when God went on a six-day-long world-shaping spree but took the seventh day to let it all rest. God tried to instill that sabbath sense in God’s chosen people, knowing that the whole human race was prone to overtaxing everything in sight when greed was in the driver’s seat. 

As the philosopher Martin Burber observed, we humans approach other people, the world, and God with two fundamental ways of relating: as “I-You” or “I-It.” In the I-You encounter, we relate to one another in an exchange of mutuality, reciprocity, care, attention, and respect. I see you for you, you see me for me. In the I-It encounter, however, it’s just the opposite: we perceive one another as mere objects, as things to be used. With the first, there is love between us. With the second, we are separate, detached. 

In what ways is this true not just for people, but for our relationship to the earth? How often do we approach God’s beautiful but broken creation as an “it,” as an object there simply for us to take what we want, consequences be damned?

We know the ways this is true because of the reprieve the earth and its critters are getting from us right now. We are catching just a glimpse of what happens when we slow down, when we stop, when we do less driving and flying and manufacturing and drilling and all the other flurry of consumption. Wildlife are reclaiming roadways: peacocks in Mumbai, goats in Wales, lions in South Africa. You can see the Himalayas from Punjab for the first time in 30 years. You can breathe in Los Angeles, the longest stretch of good air since 1980. Satellite imagery shows a visible difference in pollution in the atmosphere. The amount of seismic noise on the planet has dropped by a third, meaning the earth is shaking less. 

All of this is showing us what is possible when we access the deep roots of wisdom in our faith traditions that teach us how to give other people, other creatures, and the planet a rest. Sabbath and jubilee are gifts God has given us for the proper balance and flourishing of the whole creation. In our time, doing less and consuming less are ways we put these ancient concepts of sabbath and jubilee into practice. Over time they teach us how wonderfully interdependent we all are as God’s creatures. They drive home the point that we are God’s partners, mere tenant farmers on this blessed earth. 

Perhaps in this time of “forced sabbath” we can recover (or for some us, establish for the very first time) our profound connection with the plants, animals, the land around us, and the sky above us. By paying closer attention to that depth of connection, we will become more fully aware of the impact we have on the earth and its creatures. Maybe, in this extraordinary time, in the midst of ththe very real frustration and fear and challenges we face in this pandemic, God is offering us the gift of perspective: of seeing ourselves as stewards of this good but groaning creation, not its owners. And maybe with that there will be, in the words of Leviticus, “the redemption of the land.” 

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